Vixxie celebrates a humble Samhain.
Ah.. Samhain. The time when the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead is believed to be at its thinnest and when even the most non-magical muggles indulge in spooky activities and ancient superstitions. I could have written Halloween, or Hallow’s End, and then it would have obviously rung a bigger bell. But Samhain is way, way more than a freak’s day out. It has roots in a far further history than the Christian one.
The Catholic Church decided to use November 1st as All Saints Day. This was actually a pretty smart move because the local pagans were already celebrating Samhain anyway, so it made sense to use it as a church holiday. 200 years later, the church made November 2 All Souls’ Day, a day to honour the dead, loved and deceased ones. It is celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints’, All Saints’, and All Souls’ day, are called Allhallowmas – the mass of all those who are hallowed. Eventually it morphed into what is commonly known as Halloween.
Today, Halloween is no longer a religious festival. It has become commercialized as an event for kids (and adult kids) to have fun, play dress up and be scared by ghouls and ghosts. It has become nothing more than a secular holiday. But indulge me….
The word Samhain comes from the Irish Gaelic word for “summer’s end.” The Celts followed a lunar calendar and their celebrations began at sunset the night before, inaugurating the start of the new Celtic Year.
So let’s start by getting in the mood with some ancient Irish storytelling with one of the many Samhain legend of Fionn MacCool.
After his seven years of training with the poet Finegas were done, Fionn Mac Cumhaill took himself from the river Boyne to the great hall of the High King in Tara, to present himself there as a member of the Fianna, the very best of the best warriors throughout Ireland. Announcing himself, Conn took him into the band and made him one of them, although Goll son of Morna (who had helped in the slaying of the father of Fionn) muttered and complained. Goll was captain of the Fianna by then but the king paid him no mind.
The year was drawing to a close and the festival of Samhain was upon them, which was an occasion for fear and sorrow in Tara. In the past some forgotten insult had been dealt to a creature who dwelt in a barrow close by, his name being Aillen. On the night of the feast of Samhain the world grew thin, and beings from this realm and the underworld could step through and walk where they did not belong.
Nine times Aillen had come, and nine times ruin he had wrought. With his sweet harp he would sing the heroes of the Fianna to sleep, and then with his pipe he would rain down fire upon their hall and houses.
When the feast on that night was done, the High King asked that the silvery chimes of the chain of silence be heard and he stood to speak before his people. “Friends and heroes,” said Conn, “Aillen will come tonight with occult, terrible fire against our city. Is there among you one who loves Tara and the king, and who will undertake our defence against that being?”
Goll who was the leader of the Fianna looked askance and took another drink of his wine, saying nothing, while his men grumbled and mumbled at one another. As the silence grew long and thick, the king was almost resigned to declare himself champion to the shame of all, when who should leap upon the table but the bold Fionn!
“I’ll take on this Sidhe,” he said, and asked what he might expect as a reward. And the High King told him he could have whatever it was within the power of his royalty to grant. The kings of Ireland and the fabled druid Red Cith sounded out their support, and so it was done. Fionn marched from the hall bidding all a good night, which they returned, but in truth they were bidding him goodbye.
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Through the darkened and silent streets he marched, for although you might think it foolish to sleep within a burning house, that was as nothing to the horrors that would rain down outside! As was his habit for, he sought help from his own people among the Sidhe but heard no answer. So he took himself through the stern walls of Tara, one after another, until he finally reached the broad plain of Tara. In the dark under the lightless sky he stood, but he didn’t fear the shadows. He had been bred in the dimness of a forest and his parents had been dusk and gloaming. Neither could the wind afflict his ear or his heart. There was no note in its orchestra that he had not brooded on and become, which becoming is magic. His ear knew by what successions they arrived, and by what stages they grew and diminished. Listening in the dark to the bundle of noises which make a noise he could disentangle them and assign a place and a reason to each gradation of sound that formed the chorus: there was the patter of a rabbit, and there the scurrying of a hare, a bush rustled yonder, but that brief rustle was a bird, that pressure was a wolf, and this hesitation a fox, the scraping yonder was but a rough leaf against bark, and the scratching beyond it was a ferret’s claw.
And yet he heard a new sound, that of a man almost as well acquainted with the darkness as himself. And who was it but the brigand and robber who’d raised him after his father had been slain, Fiacuil mac Cona! For Fiacuil had heard of his challenge and was determined to help him in any way he could. They spoke for a little then Fiacuil drew forth the wrapped package he carried with him on his back.
“You remember my spear with the thirty rivets of Arabian gold in its socket?”
“The one,” Fionn queried, “that had its head wrapped in a blanket and was stuck in a bucket of water and was chained to a wall as well–the venomous Birgha?” “That one,” Fiacuil replied.
“It is Aillen own spear,” he continued, “and it was taken out of his Shi’ by your father.”
“Well?” said Fionn, wondering nevertheless where Fiacuil got the spear, but too generous to ask.
“When you hear Aillen coming, take the wrappings off the head of the spear and bend your face over it, the heat of the spear, the stench of it, all its pernicious and acrid qualities will prevent you from going to sleep.”
“Are you sure of that?” said Fionn.
“You couldn’t go to sleep close to that stench, nobody could,” Fiacuil replied decidedly.
He continued: “Aillen will be off his guard when he stops playing and begins to blow his fire, he will think everybody is asleep. Then you can deliver the attack you were speaking of, and all good luck go with it.”
In return for the spear Fiacuil asked a third of all Fionn’s worth, and a seat at his council, which Fionn granted him.
And so it was that Fionn stood alone in the dark, eyes like a wild thing, and the spirit Aillen came to Tara. When he played his harp of sleep, a drowsiness came upon Fionn but he pulled the cloth from the spear and the stench of it snapped him wide awake. Then as the occult blue fires began to rise, he sprang out of the bushes and cast from the thong of that bitter spear, plunging it straight betwixt the shoulder blades of Aillen, and he fell that night, never to rise again!
The old Celtic folklore is incredibly elaborate ! There are many more Irish myths and legends tied to Samhain, Google will help you on your way if you’d feel like reading some more of them.
So what is Samhain at Vixxie’s like then? Well… apart from obviously celebrating Halloween with a scary movie and my favourite blanket, there is also the tradition of making sugar skulls for Day of the Dead. The rest of the month, all the way to Yule, is spent carving pumpkins, eating pumpkins, baking pumpkins and decorating the house with pumpkins! I love pumpkins!!! All of them squashes and gourds in all colours too!
It’s time to settle in for winter, a cozy warm fireplace, some woolen blankets, a couple of good movies on your hard drive and a massive cooking pot full of comfort food on the stovetop.
A new spiritual year
Most of the leaves have fallen from the trees and if they haven’t yet they soon will. While walking home after work, nightfall closes in on me earlier every day, everything around me grows darker. There’s a chill in the air and a crisp scent of wet leaves on the floor. The gardens and fields are brown, dying and winter is looming. It almost feels like you can feel the earth dying and the afterlife shines through more eerie than ever. It’s pretty evident that people all over the world celebrate all their old traditions about the cycle of death and rebirth around this period. For me, on top of honouring my ancestors and deceased loved ones, it’s the perfect time for self reflection and spiritual growth. Samhain is, after all, also the beginning of the new spiritual year.
Most people celebrate New Year and wait until December, but this time of the year is perfect to wrap up the old (in a spiritual way) and prepare for the new in life. All the things you have left unresolved and unfinished … Time to clean out the cobwebs before the end of the calendar year!
Honouring our ancestors
Samhain is also the time to honour our ancestors and celebrate their memory. I’ve lost my dear grandma last year on November 14th, so I’ll be chewing through my own big chunk of remembrance. Some wounds feel like they will take more than a lifetime to heal.
I don’t have any love for cemeteries because I believe that people only thinking of their lost relatives/loves/friends on All Soul’s Day are hypocrites. I think about them more often than once a year but as a sign of respect for the Day of The Dead, I take some small candles and my wax pens out, and decorate them with the names of all the significant presences I have lost in my life. While the candles burn, I remember them one by one by reviewing journals, photographs or blog posts.
Lots of food
I try to prepare as much seasonal dishes as I can. I will share some of my favourite November/Samhain recipes soon.
“Trick or treat”-ing
“Trick or treat” has always been that American modern custom I thought would never make it over the big blue (ironically it originated in Ireland & Scotland). But did you know that it used to be a rather sad festivity on All Saint’s Day, where the poor people would go from door to door to beg for food (in return, praying for that family’s deceased ancestors)?. This practice was eagerly encouraged by the catholic church because it was a convenient alternative to the Pagan tradition of leaving food and wine on the doorstep for roaming spirits.
Admittedly, the real trick or treating for children is not at all popular in my neighbourhood. I think it’s mostly because we have some typically catholic tradition called “Driekoningen” early January where children dress up as Kings and Queens of the old world, visiting Little Jesus’ crib. Aka ringing every doorbell, sing a song and get some candy. Same thing as trick or treating really, just a ‘slightly’ different meaning and timing.
But since a few years, the number of children ringing my door in their fabulous costumes trying to score some candy started to grow. And I like children, contrary to what most people assume. Last year I had a grand total of 14 little visitors! With Corona this year, I probably won’t have anyone ringing my bell but hopefully next year, the tradition will pick up again 🙂 Nothing better than baking mini cupcakes and sugar skull candy!
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